As much as I am a traditionalist who favors the classic style of a Broadway book musical, I also appreciate that the category is a big tent with room to evolve and include new forms. Passing Strange is loud and energetic, featuring a rocking five-piece band onstage. When the band is playing and the cast is singing the music of Stew and Heidi Rodewald, it's like a party, a prayer meeting and a concert all rolled into one. But the musical purports to tell a story, too, and this one has little to say that's new. Boy is misunderstood, leaves home to find himself, finds a girl, loses a girl and finally comes to the realization that no one will ever love him as much as his mother.
Along the route of his journey to search for "the real," the Youth (who is not given a name) discovers marijuana and sexual freedom in the paradise of Amsterdam, and experiences writer's block when he has nothing to complain about. He moves on to Berlin where his revolutionary cohorts seem disaffected by everything, yet are capable of teaching him a lesson about family and love. In his travels, he remains an empty vessel, repeatedly repelling "the real" that he is seeking and not recognizing it until it slaps him hard in the face. Long before he got it, I lost interest in his self-indulgent pretentiousness.
The crux of my problem is that the Youth (Cheo Bourne) is escaping from a comfortable, suburban Los Angeles neighborhood where he lives with his warm, church-going mother (Cheryl D. Singleton). His angst is garden variety adolescent angst, which the libretto tries to convince us rises to something more dramatic. Bourne does his best with a pouty rebelliousness, and Singleton emotes beautifully as the long-suffering, oft-forgotten matriarch keeping the home fires burning for her wandering son. She is especially moving during an overseas phone call when her words say little, but her tone and her face say so much.
De'Lon Grant, Eve Kagan, Maurice Parent and Kami Rushell Smith show their diversity playing multiple roles as the characters the Youth encounters along the way. They are all accomplished singers and dancers, but Parent, who also serves as dance captain, stands out with his fluidity, and Smith is among the best of Boston's songbirds. Cliff Odle makes his New Rep debut as Narrator, telling the Youth's story in song and verse, and also lends his skills to the band on bass. Music direction is by Todd C. Gordon and choreography by Kelli Edwards, hot off an IRNE award for last year's Hot Mikado.
Scenic designer Eric Levenson uses tiered platforms and ladder-like vertical framing to provide the effect of a concert stage, augmented by Karen Parsons' smoky spotlights and Aaron Mack's sound design. At times, the lyrics get swallowed up by the pulsating music, albeit further authenticating the concert experience. Gail Astrid Buckley does a lot to create character with her costume designs, especially in the Berlin segment.
Artistic Director Kate Warner appropriately selected Passing Strange as an entrant for this season's theme of transformation. In her program notes, she suggests that, although we want to see ourselves reflected in art, we should balance that with other viewpoints and what is different from us. I couldn't agree more because I think that theatre has a responsibility to educate, as well as entertain. That was my expectation for this show, but it was more familiar than strange.
Passing Strange, performances through May 22 at New Repertory Theatre; Box Office 617-923-8487 or www.newrep.org.
Book and Lyrics by Stew, Music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, Created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen, Directed by Kate Warner, Music Direction by Todd C. Gordon, Choreography by Kelli Edwards, Scenic Design by Eric Levenson, Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley, Lighting Design by Karen Parsons, Sound Design by Aaron Mack; Properties Supervisor, Julie Tidemand; Stage Manager, Julien Winter Tremblay; Assistant Stage Manager, Lisa Wondolowski CAST: Cheo Bourne, De'Lon Grant, Eve Kagan, Cliff Odle, Maurice Parent, Cheryl D. Singleton, Kami Rushell Smith; BAND: Brian Grochowski, Jen Lowe, David McGrory, Cliff Odle, Erik Puslys